Mother’s Day is over, but some activists say the nation’s chronic tendency to jail mothers and vulnerable women remains. 

“There’s been an over 800 percent increase in the rate of incarceration for women over the last 30 years,” said Holly Krig, who heads up Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration. “In Illinois, about 85 percent of women in jail and prisons have children who are minors,” she said.

Krig was speaking into a bullhorn to a crowd of about three dozen gathered on the grass median across the street from the Cook County Jail on the day before Mother’s Day last week. While they may not have been visible to the women locked up inside Division 17, one of the areas of the facility that houses mothers, they could be seen by families waiting to visit their incarcerated relatives, Krig said.

Josephine Horace Jackson, of Elmwood Park, used to be one of those women locked up. Twenty-eight years ago, she was separated from her daughter after going to jail for what she said was a white-collar crime. Despite a fight with state authorities, her family members were able to take care of the child. 

“Most other ladies don’t have that good ending,” Jackson said. “They are behind those bars and their kids usually end up going from family member to family member. This is for those ladies who don’t have good family members who would provide care for their children,” Jackson said, referring to the morning gathering.

Krig, Jackson and other speakers at last Saturday’s vigil noted that women are often locked up for problems that more appropriately warrant treatment services and support systems. Moreover, those problems are often the result of deeper social injustices, the speakers said.

“There’s a lot of discussion about violence,” said Krig. “How violence has been the root of all problems in our communities. But [there’s not much talk] about violence the way we’re talking about violence. The violence of people being aggressively evicted; thrown out on the street; not having safe homes; not having a community clinic to go to and finding themselves in the Cook County Jail.”

Melissa Hernandez said she was 17-years-old when she “fell victim to the streets.” She became a drug addict and was involved in gangs. She had a child. Hernandez said she was arrested when her son was three.

“My son suffered some trauma,” she said. “He didn’t smile when he came to visit me. I didn’t need to be incarcerated. I needed rehab. I needed help. This was not the answer for me and my family. I suffered from physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse…”

Sabrina Morey said she began selling drugs to feed her two children. She “caught a case” and became homeless. She was on the run from law enforcement for six years, during which time she “got a job” and changed her life, she said. But the law finally caught up with her. She recalled spending holidays while in jail and worrying about the wellbeing of her children. 

“It was the worst time of my life,” she said. “You’re in there, your kids are out on the streets. You don’t know what’s going on with them … who they’re with; what they’re doing; if they’re eating.”

Ayanna Banks Harris highlighted the case of Melissa Alexander, the Florida mother who fired a shot within proximity of her abusive husband and faced decades in jail. She eventually pleaded guilty to assault in exchange for a lighter sentence and house arrest.

“We know that we live in a country that incarcerates and criminalizes women and mothers who defend themselves,” said Harris. “[They] are abused by men, but do not have the opportunity to defend their children.”

Others at the vigil were mothers who, while never having served time behind bars, were sentenced, in a way, to grieve for children they lost to gun violence. Dorothy Holmes lost her son Ronald “Ronnieman” Johnson, 25, after he was killed by police last October. 

Johnson was one among several victims of what Krig called “state violence” whose faces were printed on small square cards on the back of which was a message that read, “We will not allow you to be forgotten or disappeared. Survival is not a crime. We honor you on this Mother’s Day and everyday.” Other faces included that of Rekia Boyd, 22, the Chicago woman who was shot to death in 2012 by off-duty police detective Dante Servin.

The cards were tied to strings, which were knotted to balloons that were released by the crowd in the direction of the jail. Most of the balloons floated into the branches of a nearby tree, forming an ad hoc memorial to the lives the group was collectively determined not to forget. At least one balloon, however, managed to float above the two-lane traffic, up above the barbed-wire fencing and into the caged compound where the mothers were housed.